Miles: It's refreshing to just be a Loyola fan

One of my early mentors on the baseball beat was Jerome Holtzman, the "Dean" of Chicago baseball writers.

For whatever reason, Jerome took a liking to me and was always forthcoming with stories and advice, even though he worked for the Chicago Tribune.

"Get to the ballpark early, kid," he would say. "And if you rip a player, make sure you stand in the middle of the clubhouse the next day so he can have his shot at you."

It was sound advice, and I've missed Jerome every day since he died in 2008.

Holtzman wrote a book called "No Cheering in the Press Box," in which he interviewed many of the greats in the sports-writing business.

When you cover a sports team, even in your hometown, as I do with the Cubs (and have done over the years with every Chicago pro sports team), you put your allegiances aside and report objectively.

But for the first time in a long time, I've gotten to be a fan in the purest sense. I am a 1979 graduate of Loyola University Chicago, and since I am not covering the Ramblers' improbable run to the NCAA Final Four, I get to be an unabashed fan.

And, boy, is it fun. And refreshing.

Since the Ramblers beat Florida early in the season, I've kept an eye on coach Porter Moser's bunch, tuning them in on TV whenever I could.

I watched the regular-season loss to Bradley, the Ramblers' last defeat and thought, "OK, this team is pretty good, but I'm not expecting much."

Next thing I knew, Loyola was winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament - putting it all together in the final game - and gaining an automatic berth in the big dance. As well as the Ramblers played all season, they would not have made the NCAA tournament had they not won the MVC. That rant is the subject for another day.

When Selection Sunday came and it was announced the Ramblers would play Miami in the first round of the NCAAs, I said to my wife (a 1980 Loyola grad), "This is a winnable game."

It was, thanks to Donte Ingram's 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

After that, I didn't expect much, putting me in the company of team chaplain Sister Jean. I must admit I had the Ramblers going out against Tennessee, but the fan in me nearly jumped through the ceiling when Clayton Custer bounced his jumper through the basket with 3.6 seconds left to lift Loyola to 63-62 victory over the Vols and into the Sweet 16.

From there, it was another "upset," as Marques Townes hit a 3-pointer to ensure a victory over Nevada and put Loyola into the Elite 8.

With each victory and buzzer beater, the fan in me came out as I lived with each basket and died with each turnover.

The win over Kansas State to reach the Final Four was as close to a blowout as it gets for Loyola, 78-62, as Ben Richardson seemed to have ice water in his veins with his 3-pointers and that crucial 4-point play.

But the fan in me wouldn't let me go all Red Auerbach and light the victory cigar - figuratively speaking - until a minute was left in the game.

From here, who knows? As I keep saying, it's all gravy from here on out, but I'll take one more win. That's a tall order against Michigan.

I know one thing: The country seems to be behind the Ramblers. Before heading out to Miami to cover the Cubs in their series against the Marlins, I bought a Loyola Final Four shirt for myself and a Sister Jean shirt for my wife.

I wore my shirt on the trip to Miami on Wednesday. At O'Hare, a man came over and asked if I was an alum. He then shook my hand and wished the Ramblers good luck. That kind of thing happened over and over on the plane and during my layover.

"Go Ramblers," said a man as I waited to board my connecting flight in Charlotte. "I always go for the underdog."

I thanked him and said I did, too, whether it be Valpo or Butler or Virginia Commonwealth.

When I was on the shuttle from Miami Airport to my hotel, two couples voiced their support for Loyola and congratulated me. I told them I had nothing to do with it.

What happens from here? Who knows? But for a couple of weeks, it sure feels good to be a fan.

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